In a comment thread on a previous post I linked to a personal faith statement that I wrote a few years ago. As we have been talking about theological symbols, namely the resurrection, it occurred to me that there is a difference between personal faith, theology, and history. Last night as I was finishing The Gospel of the Second Coming by Timothy Freke and Peter Gandy, I ran across an interesting passage.
This book is a clever one. It is not for everyone. It is attempt to explain an early Christian interpretation of Jesus, often called Christian Gnosticism. We are only now learning about these alternative Christian movements thanks in part to recently discovered texts. Most of what we had previously known about them were by the various church fathers who didn't like them very much. April DeConick at Forbidden Gospels writes of this movement from a scholarly perspective. I have no idea what she might think of Freke and Gandy's interpretation.
This book by Freke and Gandy is a parable of Jesus speaking with Peter and Mary Magdalene but really addressing the reader to explain this early movement and its philosophy. It is clever, but would be perceived as irreverent by certain folks. If you don't mind irreverence, then you might be interested.
Anyway, here is the passage that caught my eye:
And Jesus explained, "I do exist, Peter, but not as a historical figure. I'm an archetypal symbol who inhabits the depths of the Imagination. Each person imagines me differently and so has a personal relationship with their very own Jesus. That can be real enough and wonderfully comforting, because I'm an image of Spirit through which you can communicate with your own essential nature."
"I'm so glad to hear you say that, Lord," sighed Mary with relief. "Because I've been a little worried that the reader might have had a personal relationship with you since they were a child, and I don't want them to feel that we're just taking this away."
"I agree wholeheartedly," agreed Jesus wholeheartedly. "I'm delighted that so many people want a personal relationship with me--that's great. And it's perfectly okay for them to talk to me like an invisible friend when times get hard. People speaking to me is absolutely fine; it's the stupid things they imagine I say back that cause all the trouble." (p. 136)
I have often written that I think it is important not to confuse history with theology. I also think it is important not to confuse theology with personal faith. Even though both a study of history and theology can deepen and transform personal faith.
Personal faith is the heart. It is the connection, to rephrase Carl Jung and Joseph Campbell, to our essential Self or what we might call God. It is very natural when one's theology is challenged to see it as an attack on one's personal faith.
Since (some forms of) Christian theology has wedded its symbols to historical events and its theological theories to personal faith, the study of the history of Christian origins can be experienced by many as an attempt to take away one's personal faith.
I have learned (and am still learning) over the years to be careful about that in preaching and in teaching. I do have a lot to learn. My style is to be provocative at first, then explain later. It is a teaching style. Right or wrong, I find it effective.
These arguments on blogs or in personal conversations get so passionate. Those who don't buy into the theological and historical arguments of certain Christians and those Christians who feel that a challenge by historians or theologians is wrong are both defending their personal faith which they know by personal experience to be real.
"How dare you challenge my personal faith, my experience, my relationship to the Divine?" is the cry from all sides.
For what it is worth, I think it is important to treasure our own personal faith and that of others, even as we continue to deepen and expand our awareness of theology and history.